Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Aborigine Spirituality as the Grounding Theme in the Films of Peter Weir

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Aborigine Spirituality as the Grounding Theme in the Films of Peter Weir

Article excerpt

IT SEEMS THAT MOST Americans know and appreciate Peter Weir's Hollywood works, films such as Dead Poets Society (DP, 1989), Fearless (1993), and the recent The Truman Show. Few among Weir's American audiences, however, know of his early Australian works. Yet all his films hearken back to the Aborigine spirituality and cosmology he learned as he directed Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (LW, 1977). Understanding these patterns could be important to American psychic development. This postmodern era needs an understanding of other cultures and especially Aborigine spirituality, untouched for eons by Western concepts. We postmoderns tend to see systems of spirituality as items on a gourmet menu; we need the fullest range of possibilities. Also, Weir deserves recognition as a visionary artist who depicts another nationality's images of mysticism.

If we know his earlier works, mistaken readings can be avoided. Some critics interpret Dead Poets as a homosexual film (Hentzi, 3-4); they further insist that Weir's earlier works are homoerotic (Hartigan, 94-96). Weir does often feature same-sex dyads, but this is a depiction of mateship, an Australian concept (McFarlane, 28) that few Americans understand. Another example of misreading: Picnic did well in Europe and was the all-time most seen film in Australia (Wells, 313). Yet it did not do well in America. When it first toured the states in the late 70s, I attended the film with a young woman who was furious about the ambiguous ending. She wanted to know exactly what the historical closure was and what happened to the girls. Political/historical perspectives are not Weir's approach to truth. Australian political roots have but slight duration in historical time; perhaps that is why Weir can with such ease juxtapose timeless aboriginal truths to Western culture. His spiritual vision is anti-political more than apolitical.

Weir's earliest films cannot be much more richly interpreted; much more scholarship on Aborigine thought has become available since he made Picnic and LW. Tony Swain, School of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney, has written the definitive book, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being, a synthesis of everything in the field. Other field-based books like anthropologist Diane Bell's Daughters of the Dreaming are now in paperback and widely read. Considering that this scholarship was unavailable to Weir, his films are amazingly accurate in their rendering of Aborigine thought.

Swain says that each tribe thinks of itself as completely separate and different from others. The far northern tribes bear the influence of Melanesian contacts off Cape York; they feature a fertility cult and a Mother goddess. Southeastern tribes, members of which Weir worked with, have absorbed Christian ideas; LW includes Aborigine ideas borrowed from Western culture.

For example, "Endtime" is a version of the Christian Apocalypse and our term "dreamtime" is a misnomer. The Aborigines define being in terms of place and space rather than time. For them times does not precede event; events simply occur and there are no ultimate precedents, origins. Time beginning and ending are impossible concepts for them to entertain. Dreaming is not a time but a symbol, a location and a source of energy. There are only what Swain calls "Abiding events," which exist eternally and give comfort and identity to the humans who belong to them and reenact them in ritual. Such time systems are hard for us to grasp; we are a history-based people and our belief system is completely dependent on sequential views of time. For us, even cyclical time is simply linear time curved and disappearing into itself.

After the needs of food and shelter are met, Bell says that their daily focus is preparing the next ritual: teaching about it, preparing special foods, body painting, rehearsing, making stage props. Each site location has its own character and story, so there are narratives of a "multitude of independent place-shaping Events" (Swain, 32). …

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